Milwaukee mountain bike trail builders go legit
I've long lived just outside Milwaukee County by a couple of miles but had never even considered looking in to the big city as a mountain biking possibility. In fact, I didn't think there was enough undeveloped land that would even be available for any decent length of trail.
Granted, as a kid growing up in the '50s, we hammered around a maze of wooded trails at McGovern Park on Milwaukee's northwest side, usually playing bike tag on our single-speed Schwinn fat tires. After thoroughly wearing ourselves out, we'd head to the McGovern swimming pool to cool off.
When looking back, little did I realize that other kids in the metro area were also finding their own wooded trails and that those kids would eventually form Milwaukee's mountain bike club, which would become the driving force behind the emerging legitimate trail system in Milwaukee County. Until then, plenty of people were biking on various rogue trails scattered around the county.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. How I even learned about the Metro Mountain Bikers is a story in itself. My good friend, the late Wayne Fish, called one day from his home in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, and said he had a plan for the next time he and his wife, Barb, came down to visit. We normally would do some mountain biking, usually hitting the Muir and Carlin, or Greenbush trails.
This time Wayne had another suggestion. He had just finished a Wisconsin Off Road Series (WORS) race, during which he spend a good bit of time behind a biker with incredible bike handling skills. When they got to talking, he was surprised to find that the biker was from Milwaukee and the only trail biking he usually did was close to home on trail near the Menomonee Parkway.
So it took a phone call from up north to let me know I had a legitimate mountain biking experience 10 minutes from my house.
Wayne and I did bike those trails together, and while they didn't have much for hills, they were technical with a lot of twists, roots and other obstacles - even the occasional log to jump over. More recently, I discovered that we missed the best part of that trail system, the Oak Hill Trails, just north of where we biked. We headed south of those trails and were actually on rogue trails, created by local kids.
Local kids do good
Just how did the legit urban mountain bike trails get built? Well, some kids never quit riding some of these trails. One kid in particular was Marty Weigel, who grew up in Wauwatosa. His small group of riders gradually expanded through the years. About 15 years ago, they decided to form a mountain bike club to not only maintain the trails the members enjoyed but help develop new and officially recognized ones.
Thus, the Metro Mountain Bikers club was formed (see sidebar). Their original home was Crystal Ridge in Franklin, which then had trails on leased parkland. Each Wednesday evening, for 15 to 16 years, they had club training rides, which at times were more like races. Along the way, the Metro Mountain Bikers even hosted a few WORS races before they decided to put their energy into getting official mountain bike trails in Milwaukee County.
The shift in focus wasn't easy. They heard all the traditional answers from park officials as to why mountain bike trails couldn't be built. There wasn't interest or a demand for such trails. No money. Too dangerous.
Then in 2003, Sue Black was appointed to the position of Milwaukee County parks director. Her first response to the possibility of mountain bike trails was more like "Why don't we have them?"
Since then, things have gradually taken off. Presently, Milwaukee County has three official mountain bike trails and more are planned.
Hoyt Park trails
The first official trail was a 2.5-mile loop in Hoyt Park, chosen mainly because it was already there, created by neighborhood kids on their bikes. Legalizing the trail in September 2007 jump-started the Milwaukee County mountain bike trail system.
Lead project volunteer Harold Schmidt even taught novice riders a few tricks for navigating the twisting trail. "The trails aren't extreme at all. There are no screaming downhills, or steep climbs. But they are technical because you don't want to hit the trees," wrote Tom Held for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's "Off the Couch" blog after a ride.
Best of all, the Hoyt Park trails are accessible to the average Milwaukee urban biker. The Hoyt Park trailhead at 1800 Swan Boulevard is a short drive for many area off-road bike owners. And Schmidt still leads evening rides there on odd numbered Tuesdays.
Since Hoyt Park opened for mountain biking, two new official trail systems have been developed in Milwaukee County. Again, they piggybacked on existing trails, some of which have been ridden by kids for over 50 years. Black herself named one of the new trails, the Alpha Trail, which links into the Crystal Ridge system from the west.
All the trails are designed, built and maintained by volunteers of the Metro Mountain Bikers, Milwaukee's chapter of Wisconsin Off-Road Bicycling Association with the permission and guidance of Milwaukee County parks. The system includes 4.7 miles of easy trail and 2.7 miles of more difficult trails. All trails are designed for mountain bike use with hiking and walking also allowed.
Crystal Ridge trails
I saw firsthand how technical and difficult these trails can be when I witnessed a state road race age group champion who, without much time on singletrack trails, decided to enter a WORS race at Crystal Ridge. He had to dab a foot down over a dozen times in that race and finished dead last in the comp division. While he never took on a WORS race again, I can attest to this roadie becoming a very proficient bike handler when he added mountain biking to his training regimen.
I have occasionally headed to Franklin to bike the Crystal Ridge trails and can personally attest to their technical nature. While other Milwaukee County trails are rather flat, this one has more than enough climbing to suit anyone. If you want more hill work, stick to the shorter loops that go up and down the ski hill on the Crystal Ridge side. If you want easier but still technical biking, head to the Alpha trails.
Parking for these trails can be found on either end. The Crystal Ridge ski hill parking lot is located on Crystal Ridge Road off South 76th Street, just south of Rawson. Parking for the Alpha trailhead is located at 6740 South 92nd Street, just north of Whitnall Park Golf Course. An excellent PDF map of the entire trail system can be found by Googling Alpha Trail, Crystal Ridge, mountain bike trail.
The Oak Hill Trail is the other new "official" system. It is a three-looped trail, six miles in length, that winds its way on the west side of the Menomonee River, from Capitol Drive to Hampton Avenue. This trail follows the riverbed and, while fairly flat, it is technical enough to make it fun to ride.
The Oak Hill Trail can be accessed by taking the Menomonee River Parkway to a location just north of Capitol Drive; you actually pass under Capitol. From there head west on your bike until you see the posted signs indicating the Oak Hill Trail. Then get ready to enjoy a surprisingly fun urban mountain bike trail.
The Oak Hill Trail can be accessed from the north end on Hampton Avenue between State Highway 100 and U.S. Highway 45. Parking is available in a church lot next to the gas station on State 100 and Hampton Avenue.
The Oak Hill and Hoyt trails, first carved out by kids on their bikes just having fun, are the finest trails I've seen to get youngsters started in mountain biking. The trails are technical, but they're also safe and easily accessible. And they're not just for kids.
Don Bilden, a former U.S. age group champion in cross-country skiing and an avid mountain biker from Menomonee Falls, has often biked those trails. He describes them as "fun and surprisingly technical in places." And since it only takes 15 minutes for him to get there from his house, it is often his best option. The North and South Kettle Moraine State Forest trails are an hour drive away.
The Milwaukee River Trail is now in the planning stage, involving The Friends of Estabrook, Harold Schmidt and the Milwaukee County parks. When legally opened, hopefully by next summer, this trail will offer convenient singletrack to those who live on the east side. The existing trail has hosted some official events. But there are some right-of-way issues requiring bikers to ride short stretches on the Oak Leaf Trail and city streets. The round-trip trail length from North Avenue to Port Washington Road and back will be about 12 miles. The River Trail will utilize both sides of the river.
Surprisingly, the other future project is located in Waukesha County, specifically Minooka Park. The planning phase is a joint effort of the Metro Mountain Bikers, Waukesha Bike Coalition and Waukesha County parks. Ron Stawicki, an elite mountain biker, is also heavily involved. Weigel describes the present situation as "a toe in the water" stage.
After skiing and hiking at Minooka for more times than I can count, I have no doubt that it would be an ideal mountain bike venue. It has plenty of hilly terrain and a lot of land. In fact, it has the potential to become one of the best urban mountain bike trails in the country.
The Waukesha County parks have always been progressive from setting the standards for trail grooming in the early days of cross-country skiing to the recently created state-of-the-art dog areas. (Skier and dog walkers had often come into conflict in the winter when the dog owners hiked on the ski trails; I've seen plenty of that myself. The new dog area certainly alleviates that problem.)
So if you are a Greater Milwaukee biker, there are now trails close to home that require little commuting time and there's more to come. While Weigel says the goal is to provide some local mountain biking for metro bikers. If the Milwaukee River Trail and a Minooka trail system come to fruition, the area could become a destination for riders farther afield.
I know I will occasionally head into the city for some entertaining singletrack. I'll certainly be saving a lot of gas money. In fact, the Oak Hill trails are within easy biking distance of my home in Brookfield.
Lee Borowski is a past USSA Nordic Coach of the Year, Badger State Winter Games Athlete of the Year and the coach for several junior, senior and collegiate skiers of the year. He has also coached many master skiers who have won both national and world championships. Borowski is the author of several books and articles, and producer of four videos on cross-country skiing technique. He runs the website thesimplesecrets.com.
To order Borowski's "NEW Simple Secrets of Skating" or "The Simple Secrets of Striding," demonstrated through footage of Olympic and world champions, and available on VHS and DVD, send $25 plus $1.75 shipping to Lee Borowski, 4500 Cherokee Drive, Brookfield, WI 53045. Wisconsin residents add $1.27 tax.
Metro Mountain Biking chapter
Metro Mountain Bikers is the Milwaukee chapter of the Wisconsin Off-Road Bicycling Association. What started as a small group of local riders about 15 years ago has blossomed into something else entirely. While the original focus was more on racing, the group is more into creating urban mountain bike trails. Their weekly evening rides are still a big part of the "club" activity. Why build 'em if you can't enjoy them, right?
Official work sessions take place Monday evenings. The group supplies its own equipment and operates under the premise, "All we need is permission." Most importantly, it carries its own insurance, a must when dealing with government agencies. An average workday sees about 10 to 15 volunteers.
Their website, metromountainbikers.com, lists a membership of over 500, but Marty Weigel said only about 100 are paying members. The primary goal is finding folks willing to help on workdays. Quite frankly, the amount they've accomplished is outstanding.
All trails are designed to be sustainable, meaning they require little maintenance and don't result in erosion. To that end, the group adheres to International Mountain Biking Association best trail building practices.
Walking is allowed on the trails but hikers are directed to walk in the opposite direction as bikers. I know from experience that it can be very disconcerting to have a biker suddenly pass you from behind with no advance warning. Opposite traffic patterns solve that problem.
The organization's monthly Tuesday meetings are located at Benno's Genuine Bar & Grill in West Allis. Chris Cooper, who is very active in trail maintenance, generally presides over the meetings. Anyone interested in joining or helping out with trail work can get more information at metromountainbikers.com.
Demo a bike on the Metro Trails
During my recent visit to Wheel & Sprocket in Brookfield (see Correspondence on page 6), I overheard a conversation about a Thursday night mountain bike ride beginning n the store parking lot. As is my habit, I butted into the conversation and I'm glad I did.
It turns out that each Thursday evening at 6 p.m. a group ride heads out for the Oak Hill trails, just a couple of road miles away. The kick here is you don't have to bring your own bike or even own one. You can use one of Wheel & Sprocket's 12 demos. That way you can literally try before you buy. The real advantage, though, is getting to test them on actual trails.
But there's more. Working in conjunction with the Metro bikers, Wheel & Sprocket loads its demo bikes in a van and hauls them to the trail for the Wednesday night rides - a time trial, actually. The focus then is entirely different than the Thursday ride at Oak Hill. On Wednesdays you can could hammer on the demo bikes to see how they handles at race pace. But if you still just want to bike casually, start out after the last racer.
The Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday rides are tremendous opportunities for urban bikers to try out the fun-filled singletrack in their own backyard.
If you are interested in the Thursday ride, call Wheel & Sprocket's Brookfield store at 262/783-0700 to let them plan for you as rides are tailored to who shows up and if they need a demo.
I also called Olympian Brent Emery to see if his bike shop, Emerys, which is near the Oak Hill trails on Lisbon Avenue, had anything going on. He said staff would be organizing mountain bike rides sometime in September. For more information, call 414/463-0770.